The first time I saw her she was a mewling newborn lying in the ditch by the junction of Twist and 149. Bill Connor was the first on the scene, followed by Carlene Cessel and her two daughters. Mama and I arrived after the pastor and his wife had started a prayer circle. The whole town was there whispering low to each other—what to do, what to do—when the opossum swaddled her, grabbing the soft flesh of her neck between its teeth, salivating maternal instinct, and took her to its den. We followed a few paces behind, thought we could rescue her, but the mama opossum wouldn’t let us near. She snarled at us. We agreed that if the mama accepted her as her own then there was nothing that we could do. A mama is a mama no matter the species. I was a girl at the time. No real say in the matter.
Of course, she was too big for the pouch, but made do by latching onto her mama’s fur. Often by the side of highway 149, near stop signs and deep ditches, the opossum waddled along with her girl, tiny fingers fur-gripped to her back, scavenging roadkill—half-warm coons and squirrels. Later, she learned to crawl by following that mama opossum through the woods. We’d see her trailing behind the big furry thing, playing tag with its fleshy tail, knees callousing up. When she was teething, we found gnawed sticks all over yards. Some people collected them, thinking they might be worth something someday. Who knows at one point a gnawed stick becomes an artifact?
Mama taught me to ride my bike, running alongside me until I pedaled and propelled myself forward by my own momentum. I fell a lot, skinned up knees and elbows. Our trailer was on a dirt road off a dirt road, and I rode all along the dirt roads and gravel roads of the country, dust kicked up by rubber tires, and when my legs grew weak, I’d coast to the paved roads of the town center, by city hall, with its white-marbled columns where I’d cycle around its base and look for cracks; down by the gas station where the semis, engines idling, would rest and refuel—exhaust mixed with the sun in a heat I imagined it’d be like to be caught in the steam of boiling water. I’d race circles around the elementary school’s parking lot. Once, close to the woods near the Cass Farm, I got lost and found the opossum-girl and her mama scavenging a broken-down shack. Grabbing bits and pieces of a broken thing to make a whole thing of their own. They didn’t see me, but I watched them longer than I should have. She was only a few years younger than me, but we looked so different from each other. My bones had long since steadied upright; her body had snarled in on herself. I came home that night to my daddy and mama fighting, and when Daddy’s hand met Mama’s face, I did nothing.
When she was younger, Mama was a beauty queen, competing in pageants across the county. Always winning. We have the same curly, thick hair. Hers brown, mine dusty blonde. Her trophies sat in our dining room cabinet next to her mother’s good china for years until they didn’t. Sometime after I started sixth grade, I came home, backpack weighed by loose leaf multiplication tables, to Mama sitting cross-legged in the backyard breaking her trophies. She didn’t notice me watching her and I kept silent during hammer strikes to trophy plastic. First and second, runner-up, gold and silver. When they were all destroyed, she dumped them in our burn-barrel with the other trash. Later, I snuck out to get them. Mama didn’t know what she was doing. She’d want them later. That’s what she always told me when I did anything out of anger. But, they were there, scavenging. Opossum tails and peach-fuzzed girl-legs. I crept closer but the inches my bare feet took in the grass were enough to startle them into a hiss. I waved my arms wide, anything to make myself larger than I was, but nothing worked. They stayed guard over the barrel, and I retreated inside with no saved thing for Mama.
After the Homecoming game of my sophomore year of high school, I ran the levees with the Caster boys and their sister Jane. We snuck a six pack out of my daddy’s shop fridge. Each of us drank a can and a half and thought ourselves under the influence. Oattie, on the other hand, was drunk as a skunk, riding the highs of RC’s shine, when he rolled up in his daddy’s beat-up 1950s Ford pickup. Oattie should’ve been a senior that year, but he dropped out two years previous. He claimed that he had learned all he could and wasn’t going to learn anything more within the school walls. He started helping his dad full time on the farm. We piled into the back of Oattie’s truck and drove ruts in the muddy ground for hours.
We found the old abandoned grain silos on the backside of the Earley property. Carved our names into the weathered wood with Oattie’s pocket knife. And as we were making our way through the broken building, we found her again: eyes bright and watery in the dark.
She’d been with her adopted mother for years then. Teen by our standards, matriarch in opossum years. We looked her in the eye, and she played dead. Perfectly still, perfectly quiet. Mimicking lifelessness. More opossum than girl. Wild, but a beauty.
Oattie and the boys threw rocks at her, riling her, scaring her on purpose. Jane and I held each other. We were afraid of the boys that showed a fierceness and primal rage, more wild than the wild one they were tormenting.
Our opossum girl lay frozen through it all, until the boys ran out of rocks to throw.
Oattie drove me home that night and kissed me, his tongue exploring the cavities of my mouth, and I wanted to tell him ‘no’ but couldn’t arrange mouth-shape to word, spit out the sound of letters subsequent in alphabet-pattern. He had the half-beard of a boy becoming a man and I felt the rash of his stubble for years after that kiss.
Jane and I rode horses at her daddy’s farm. She taught me everything about horses, heel taps and light, stern pulls. To never underestimate the horse, but never show fear either. I never could get the hang of it. Jane never lost her patience and would bring her horse up next to mine anytime I’d ask. Once, Jane and I had the horses out at her daddy’s cotton fields. They were empty-husked, bare stalks twitching in the wind. We rode a while, then the boys showed up, on four-wheelers, each with a jug of gasoline. They had been sent to start the burn, to set the field on fire to turn over the nutrients for the next plant. The small fires grew tall and black smoke clouded the air. Oattie drove his four-wheeler slow up next to my horse and revved the engine, causing the horse to buck me off. The boys laughed. I was bruised and it was cruel.
Back at the barn, Jane and I settled the horses and, in the tack room, found the girl with her mama holed-up in stacks of bags that once held sweet feed. They hissed at our shapes that didn’t match what they’d been brought up to know was right and safe.
My daddy died my senior year of high school. We buried him in the cemetery where his mama and daddy were buried. Mama didn’t cry during the funeral, but would cry a week later when throwing out all of daddy’s ties. After the funeral, everyone came up to talk to Mama, and I couldn’t stand the words they cooed to her about my daddy, of how much he’ll be missed and how his memory will never be forgotten. Nothing sounded right. I let them talk and wandered through the rows of headstones to the cemetery equipment house. It was unlocked. The shed could be for a garden or the backyard of a house in a subdivision. The walls were lined with shovels and hoes and shears. A lawn mower was parked in the corner and next to its spot, a weed-eater leaned.
Behind the shed, there was a fenced-off mound of rotting flowers, taken from the graves when the new, fresh bouquets had arrived, and at its base was the girl. She was alone and wasn’t a girl anymore. Wasn’t a woman either. Instead, caught somewhere on the cusp of womanhood, and she would never make it to that other side because she wasn’t raised by a woman. I watched her eat the rotting flowers, petals sticking to her lips, until my mama’s voice called me back.